Royal commission could shine an independent light on defence abuse

A mechanism of independent scrutiny – such as a royal commission – remains the best way forward for alleviating defence abuse. AAP/Alan Porritt

As I was showering five or six senior [others] attacked me – they turned off the lights, tied my hands behind my back and proceeded to do things to me. I was held down whilst one of them put his penis in my buttocks, they were all laughing. Then they proceeded to masturbate on me. I was absolutely shocked. At that age I had never even known about things like this. I guess I started to block it out as soon as it happened. – Male Army member, late 1980s

The Defence Abuse Response Taskforce (DART), headed by Major General Len Roberts-Smith, has handed down its report on abuse at the Australian Defence Force Academy (ADFA). Horror stories of sexual abuse, sexual harassment, physical abuse and harassment and bullying litter the pages.

The report presents a damning presentation of Australia’s military culture. It details a culture of abuse compounded by a culture of silence, a failure to investigate and record and a willingness to discount the victim’s story. It suggests that around 1100 perpetrators of abuse still serve alongside many of those victims.

The DART was established in 2012 as a recommendation of the DLA Piper review into physical, sexual and other abuse within the Australian Defence Force. The DART report accounts for 2224 cases of abuse relating to more than 1650 male and female victims over about six decades. But this is not the full picture by any account.

Now that the DART has concluded its business, where to from here? A key recommendation of the DART report is a royal commission into ADFA. But is a royal commission necessary, and why only ADFA?

A culture of abuse, a culture of silence

The investigations into defence abuse were instigated after the Skype incident in 2011. A group of male officer cadets conspired to broadcast one of their fellow cadets having sex with a female cadet to an adjacent dormitory room via Skype. The sex was consensual; the broadcast was not.

The incident became emblematic of male military cultures of entitlement and abuse, as well as the question of institutional accountability. The first insult is the abuse. The second insult is the incomprehensible failure, or resistance of Defence, to address the issue.

The DART report is a record of the failure of one of Australia’s most respected public institutions. It is a record of the way in which an institution entrusted with the licence to use legitimate violence in places of conflict cultivated an institutional culture of illegitimate violence. Defence created a workplace plagued by fear, violation and distrust.

Many of these stories come out of the 1980s and 1990s: the time when I served. The stories tell of the barracks I lived and slept in; and practices I witnessed and experienced. It also tells of deeply disturbing practices I fortunately avoided. It tells of an institution designed to build military effectiveness losing its way.

Military training is a violent process. It takes the raw material of the civilian and turns them into the refined product of the soldier, sailor or airman or woman. Hardship is expected.

Being subjected to challenges – physical, mental and emotional – is part and parcel of becoming an effective combatant. Sexual harassment, rape, forced masturbation, being ejaculated upon, having objects such as broom handles forced into your anus or being handed a pistol by a senior commander and told to point it at your head and pull the trigger because you are worthless is not.

Cadets and recruits are young Australians who join the military with great ambition, a commitment to service and trust in the Australian Defence Force (ADF). The ADF and its command, its commissioned and non-commissioned officers, have been agents of betrayal of that trust. And successive governments have failed to respond seriously.

The last five decades have produced around 35 inquiries, reviews and reports into associated matters. Countless recommendations for reform have been made at the expense of millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money. Change has been glacial.

Former defence minister Stephen Smith demonstrated great conviction and courage in starting to bring this stubborn institution to account. Can his successor, David Johnston, complete the task?

Stephen Smith helped kick-start the long process of cultural reform in the ADF. AAP/Tony McDonough

What have we learned?

The ambit of the DLA Piper and DART processes has been to identify and compensate victims of defence abuse. It has been victim-focused, and rightly so.

In 2012, the DLA Piper review suggested a royal commission, a judicial inquiry or a parliamentary committee as options of redress. It recommended a royal commission into ADFA. Two years and two extensions later, we are still asking the question about a royal commission.

However, the context has changed considerably. While the well-being of victims or survivors remains paramount, the question of public accountability can no longer be delayed. The DART report outlines a systemic and institution-wide culture of abuse that maintains perpetrators in its ranks. Some, the report argues, are holding senior levels of command.

But the DART rejects institution-wide scrutiny. They say it’s too large, too expensive: too hard.

It is true that the last several years of inquiry have exposed Defence as an employer of risk. Many systemic issues have been identified and measures put in place to address them. Many cases of abuse have been identified and 1159 reparation payments have been made, totalling A$46.705 million.

A royal commission into ADFA is recommended to excavate what is described as a disturbingly high incidence of sexual abuse of female cadets during the 1990s, the serious mismanagement of those cases by Defence and the knowledge of at least 13 perpetrators still serving. A royal commission into the ADF would compound cost significantly; a royal commission into ADFA less so.

A royal commission into the ADF, however, would act on the understanding that the 2200 cases to date represent the tip of the iceberg. That includes the rape, physical and sexual abuse of men and women, both by commissioned officers and other ranks. Serious mismanagement of those cases by Defence over a long-standing period would be considered across the ADF.

Independent scrutiny

While a royal commission is incidental, its strength is that it can offer recommendations for the systematic independent scrutiny of institutional practices.

Australia has had this opportunity before. In 2005, 44 senators serving the Senate inquiry into the effectiveness of Australia’s military justice system scrutinised global approaches to military justice and received 144 submissions of defence injustice. They considered the independent military justice arm of Canada’s tripartite judicial system and recommended the implementation of a mechanism of independent scrutiny: the ADF Administrative Review Board (ADFARB).

That bipartisan recommendation for independent scrutiny of a closed institution was rejected by then-prime minister John Howard, as advised by the Chief of Defence, General Peter Cosgrove. Then-defence minister Robert Hill argued that Defence should look after its own affairs; military justice should remain within the “chain of command”.

Today we live with that legacy. Despite the progressive contemporary approaches to cultural reform, Defence appears manifestly incapable of managing its own affairs of justice. In a domestic setting, the chain of command is an excuse for impunity.

A mechanism of independent scrutiny remains the best way forward for alleviating abuse in the military. A royal commission has the weight of authority to put this ideal back on the agenda.